There is, of course, a great deal of chutzpah in the Israeli demand that the world recognize Jerusalem as its capital: Almost 40 percent of the city’s inhabitants do not have Israeli citizenship, since they are Palestinians who have only been given residency status.
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Israel goes to considerable lengths to preserve this status, denying the Palestinians the ability to vote for the parliament that proudly sits in the capital. Israel is asking the world to recognize Jerusalem while it is unwilling to bear the city’s true price.
Internationally, Jerusalem’s status is like a sort of living fossil – the last remnant of the plan to divide the land back in 1947. The city is the only place where the international community rejects not only annexation dating from June 1967, but also from the previous War of Independence in 1948. According to the UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be under international control. But both Israel and Jordan violated the plan by occupying the two halves of the city in 1948.
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To this day, the world refuses to recognize that old occupation from 1948, and there is little doubt that the Israeli decision to annex the city’s eastern half in 1967 (following the Six-Day War) contributed to the global refusal to recognize even West Jerusalem.
Yet U.S. President Donald Trump’s expected announcement Wednesday, in which he is set to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, is nothing more than symbolic. It has no practical significance.
In reality, Jerusalem has functioned as the Israeli capital since 1949. Foreign ambassadors and leaders who initially shunned the city for official meetings have long since given up that pursuit: now they just make sure to hold their meetings in the city’s western half.
But another crucial component of the international policy toward Jerusalem is reciprocity: recognizing West Jerusalem as capital of Israel obliges them to recognize East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. In fact, the mainstream in Palestinian politics – the ones running the Palestinian Authority – base themselves on that understanding.
“Abbas can’t sell a Palestinian state to his people without a capital in Al Quds,” says Ofer Zalzberg, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine, referring to the Arabic name for Jerusalem. “The basic deal in the two-state paradigm as far as the PLO is concerned is that they get Al Quds in exchange for forgoing the right of return. The American recognition of East Jerusalem also being the capital of Israel means that, from the PLO’s perspective, there’s no hope for a strategy of political negotiations in order to achieve a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem – they have nothing to show their people. They feel they need to find a new basis for their policy. Various alternatives they have suggested so far include citizenship, armed resistance, nonviolent mass resistance and legal appeals to the Hague,” he notes.
“The explosion is very close – if not today, then tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, then the day after that,” says Ali Jida, a well-known Palestinian activist in the Old City of Jerusalem. “It isn’t just Trump’s position. It’s a buildup of all sorts of things – the Israeli soldiers’ behavior, humiliations. There’s going to be an explosion and it will center on Jerusalem,” he predicts.
Even so, the sky doesn’t look like falling on Jerusalem overnight. The U.S. declaration is a body blow to the vision of a future Palestinian state. But for Jerusalemite Palestinians, this state was always a faint and intangible rumor. In contrast to the metal detectors that were briefly installed at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound this summer, it’s hard to see the U.S. statement sending the masses to the streets.
True, we may see violent clashes and an increasing number of attempted terror attacks. Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount and in the West Bank mosques will probably trigger a wave of violence, but it’s hard to see a general outbreak at this stage.
It’s worth remembering, though, that these things have a sort of “incubation period.” The second intifada broke out two months after the collapse of the Camp David talks in July 2000. The eruption of violence in the summer of 2014 came three months after talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed.
However, all the talk about the immediate ramifications of Trump’s decision are missing the point. Even if another intifada doesn’t erupt because of it, and even if Netanyahu and his ministers gloat and sneer at the left-wing’s dire prophecies, the real effect of the statement will be on Palestinian despair for a future state. That despair will strengthen calls for jihad to save Al-Aqsa, on the one hand, and growing integration into Israeli society on the other, since there’s no point in waiting any longer for the “messiah” in the form of an independent state.
The social taboo on East Jerusalemites applying for Israeli citizenship has long since been shattered. Which brings us back to the original point: Is Israel prepared to pay the real price for uniting Jerusalem? That price isn’t vacuous statements or a greater police presence in the Old City. The price is giving citizenship to some 320,000 Palestinians living in the unified city. As long as they lack citizenship and can’t vote, the statements are meaningless and the claim voiced by Palestinians and the international community (excepting Trump), that Israel is not the sovereign in Jerusalem, does have validity.
Giving them citizenship will lead to the full and real unification of eternal Jerusalem, and at the same time kill off the two-state solution once and for all. The next stage will be for Israel to face other, equally weighty questions: Whether to give citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank; and, after them, to the millions of Palestinians living elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza.
Perhaps the U.S. announcement is good news after all, since it brings the day closer in which the Israeli government has to do the thing it hates more than anything: to make a decision.